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New ways to tackle the essay mill cheats

The QAA has published guidance on dealing with students using "essay mills". Paul Greatrix takes a look into the detail.
This article is more than 6 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Back in January I wrote about the need to tackle the essay mill industry. Whilst universities have clear regulatory frameworks designed to prevent plagiarism and other forms of cheating and deploy software such as Turnitin the challenge remains.

The QAA produced this report in 2016 on the growing threat to UK higher education from essay mills. The report argued for a multi-faceted approach that builds on published research and the steps that universities and colleges are already taking to promote good academic practice by students, to ‘design out’ opportunities for plagiarism in their assessments and to detect and penalise academic misconduct. It also argued that legislation should be explored to make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services such as those provided by these essay cheat companies.

Proposals to tackle essay mills did not make into the Higher Education and Research Act and therefore legislation appears to be off the agenda . Banning such companies may not be a realistic possibility, but we do need to tackle these operations which somehow have managed to retain a veneer of credibility despite being fundamentally dedicated to helping students cheat.

Trouble at mill

Following its 2016 investigation, universities minister Jo Johnson asked QAA to work on (non-legislative) measures to combat contract cheating and the Agency has now produced some new guidance for the sector.

The guidance, just published, recommends:

  • clear information for students on the risks of cheating, including academic misconduct being reported to relevant professional bodies
  • support for students to develop independent study skills, including academic writing
  • using a range of assessment methods to limit opportunities for cheating
  • blocking of essay mill sites and action against essay mill advertising on campus
  • smarter detection,including new software and greater familiarity with students’ personal styles and capabilities
  • appropriate support for whistle blowing – to protect accuser as well as accused
  • student involvement on academic misconduct policies and panels.

The press release for the new guidance quotes Jo Johnson:

This form of cheating is unacceptable and pernicious. It not only undermines standards in our world-class universities, but devalues the hard-earned qualifications of those who don’t cheat and can even, when it leads to graduates practising with inadequate professional skills, endanger the lives of others.

QAA is also asking universities and colleges to record incidents of this and other kinds of cheating, to help build a clearer picture of the scale of the problem in UK higher education. This should be helpful in identifying further action which may be required. The press release also notes that QAA is working on guidance for students and that NUS is running a similar campaign to combat contract cheating with students.

The Telegraph’s (embargo-ignoring?) story on this focuses very much on the particularly concerning aspect of some academic staff collaborating with the essay mill providers by taking money to provide essays to students. As the Chief Executive of the QAA comments

“These ‘essay mill’ companies prey on vulnerable academics as well as students,” said Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the QAA.
“These are hard-pressed research assistants or lecturers, topping up their earnings. Many companies claim they get genuine academics to write their material. To make their businesses viable, they need to attract people who know enough about the subject.
“If a university was to find a member of staff was writing an essay for [their students] we would think that is a serious issue.”

It would be an extremely serious issue indeed. Both for the member of staff concerned and the university itself.

Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and an expert in this area, is reported in the Guardian as saying that the new guidance was a move in the right direction but that to truly tackle the problem a change in the law was needed.

Copying down under

In an interesting parallel Australia’s higher education watchdog has also unveiled new guidelines to tackle the same issues. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s guidelines highlight best practice, which includes barring students’ from commercial cheat sites while on campus, and sending them a counter-message when they try to access the sites:

“They should receive a message such as: ‘This site has been blocked because it is not a legitimate learning service’, along with a link to the higher education provider’s academic integrity resources,” the document said.
It also recommends compulsory academic integrity training for students, and professional development for staff to help them identify contract cheating.
It says contract cheating is difficult to detect because it cannot be picked up through text-matching software like standard plagiarism.
Higher education providers are also being urged to use the data they collect to identify contract cheating “hot spots” in faculties, courses and among certain assessments.
This would ensure that “resources can be allocated in areas most prone to contract cheating”.
The regulator also recommended that universities consider publishing de-identified data about cheating investigations, which could be available to students and staff on its intranet.

Education for students and staff, prevention, detection and regulation are therefore the key pillars of both QAA’s and TEQSA’s approaches.

This is welcome news indeed. Let us hope that it has an impact. However, until the essay mill companies start to go out of business then plagiarism will still be a major problem for universities.

2 responses to “New ways to tackle the essay mill cheats

  1. What an evil are all these essay writing services! The problem is that it’s difficult to fight with them. Because tools like Unicheck plagiarism checker are unable to detect when a student complies his assignment with their help. However I strongly believe that tool like Emma will cope with it. This uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to study the innards of each author’s writing style and attributes authorship on their basis and able to analyze and understand the way people write. I hope such programs will appear and they’ll overcome this terrible phenomenon.

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